The Dukes of Moral Hazard: The Dangers of Quantitative Easing

 

This brilliant and terrifying column was originally published at ProPublica and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. cc

by Jesse Eisinger
ProPublica, Nov. 10, 2010, 2:40 p.m.

sinking_shipAcross the world, there are booms. Chinese Internet companies are flourishing. Energy companies are finding new sources of power. Commercial real estate is coming back.

Unfortunately, this isn’t happening in the real world, which is still crippled by sagging economies, but in the investing one.

If there’s a doggy stock, a dodgy loan or a slice of a complex credit security made to a questionable borrower — hedge funds want it now. Companies with junk bond ratings are flooding the markets with new issuance. If private equity firms bring a money-losing company saddled with debt to market, investors are eager to snap it up.

Thank the Federal Reserve. The central bank has embarked on its program of “quantitative easing,” a second round of experimental monetary policy in which the Fed buys up assets — like longer term government bonds — to bring down interest rates, which is supposed to spur lending and borrowing, thus reigniting the economy.

Nobody knows whether it will work to bring down the intractable rate of unemployment. But it has already worked in one significant way: the speculative juices of the markets are flowing.

What’s going on? As a Fed official explained it in a recent speech, one supposed benefit of the Fed policy is that it will add to “household wealth by keeping asset prices higher than they otherwise would be.”

So it’s levitation-by-decree. When the Fed moves, financial assets receive the opposite of collateral damage: universal blessing, deserved or not. Lower rates may or may not help more people find work. But there’s no doubt that the central bank has already helped the Henry Kravises and Lloyd Blankfeins of the world.

The Russell 2000 stock index, which is made up of smaller companies, has risen about 21 percent since September, when investors started to anticipate that the Fed would intervene in an aggressive fashion. A tiny Chinese Internet stock, China MediaExpress Holdings, is up more than 250 percent since mid-September. The private investors that own Harrah’s, the money-losing casino company, are bringing it public, and investors are going to gamble on it despite a crushing debt load.

Then there are something called B notes, bonds backed by commercial real estate loans. B-note holders are on the hook for the early losses if the loans go bad. They are as hot a commodity as everything else. Never mind that there’s a huge oversupply of commercial real estate in this country. Or that Wall Street just went through a disastrous episode for complex structured financial products of exactly this sort.

Without knowing a thing about finance, here’s how to tell it won’t work out well. Wall Street is the great master of the euphemism. The Street doesn’t call them junk bonds; they are “high yield.” Here, something isn’t just Triple A. It’s “Super Senior Triple A.” So when the best investment bankers can do is to dress something up with a lowly “B,” you know it’s trash.

Leverage, meanwhile, has made a glorious return. Interactive Brokers, a discount brokerage firm, has been running an advertising campaign that displays money spewing from printing presses. The firm will lend (for certain special customers)$566,000 for every $100,000. Ah, borrowing heavily for the purposes of trading in volatile markets. Maybe some Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers bankers can explain the wisdom of this.

All of this is Finance 101. The cheaper money is to borrow, the more it makes sense to take a bigger risk with it.

But that doesn’t make it more palatable. It feels like an ominous replay of recent Federal Reserve emergency actions, which led to bigger and bigger bubbles. The Fed brokered the rescue of Long-Term Capital Management, bailing out the investment banks that had lent to the collapsing hedge fund. The Fed pumped money into the economy to save us from the Y2K computer bug. The Fed tried to rescue the economy from the bursting of the Nasdaq bubble, helping to create the housing bubble.

It’s like the exhausted “Saw” movie franchise; this isn’t just a sequel. It’s more like the third iteration of the second reboot — harder core, baser and for serious liquidity heads only.

Is this the price society has to pay for a better economy? Do we care if some hedge funders get rich as long as unemployment goes down, fewer people get thrown out of their homes and household debts are less crushing?

That would be a worthwhile tradeoff. But it’s far from clear that the Fed can get any real traction with its policies.

Over the past year, I’ve been investigating some of the more egregious conduct that occurred in the bubble years. In this column, I’ll be monitoring the financial markets to hold companies, executives and government officials accountable for their actions.

A main focus will be the spectacle of returning speculation. It’s commonplace to lament Wall Street’s lack of a historical memory. But there is something different at work. Professional investors have learned the lessons of the financial markets’ serial bubbles and learned them well.

The lesson is: When the next one comes, I’m going to get mine. I’ll just get out early this time.

You can contact Jesse Eisinger at jesse@propublica.org

Who could possibly have seen the banking disaster coming?

What was the theory behind the Glass-Steagall Act? Foremost, it was meant to restore a certain sobriety to American finance. In the 1920s, the banker had gone from a person of sober rectitude to a huckster who encouraged people to gamble on risky stocks and bonds. As [chief congressional counsel Ferdinand] Pecora noted, small investors identified banks with security, so that National City salesmen “came to them clothed with all the authority and prestige of the magic name ‘National City.’” It was also argued that the union of deposit and securities banking created potential conflicts of interest. Banks could take bad loans, repackage them as bonds, and fob them off on investors as National City had done with Latin American loans. They could even lend the investors money to buy the bonds. A final problem with the banks’ brokerage affiliates was that they forced the Federal Reserve System to stand behind both depositors and speculators. If a securities bank failed, the Fed might need to rescue it to protect the parent bank. In other words, the government might have to protect speculators to save depositors.

Ron Chernow, The House of Morgan, 1990, pg. 375. (Emphasis added)

 

The repeal of Glass-Steagall was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1999.

The arguments made to repeal the act were primarily

  1. Depository institutions will now operate in “deregulated” financial markets in which distinctions between loans, securities, and deposits are not well drawn. They are losing market shares to securities firms that are not so strictly regulated, and to foreign financial institutions operating without much restriction from the Act.
  2. Conflicts of interest can be prevented by enforcing legislation against them, and by separating the lending and credit functions through forming distinctly separate subsidiaries of financial firms.
  3. The securities activities that depository institutions are seeking are both low-risk by their very nature, and would reduce the total risk of organizations offering them – by diversification.
  4. In much of the rest of the world, depository institutions operate simultaneously and successfully in both banking and securities markets. Lessons learned from their experience can be applied to our national financial structure and regulation

Emphasis added

Bernanke consumer plan = selling sand to Saudi Arabia

My latest rant from BlownMortgage

How deaf is Ben Bernanke? With the US savings rate hitting a 14-year-high, the Fed unveils a $200B plan to “aimed at boosting the availability of credit to consumers and small businesses.” While I hope this will be of use to businesses in need of it, consumers have already made it clear they’re not interested.

As Morgan explains:

The government is trying to inject liquidity in to the ABS markets for ABS comprised of auto loans, student loans, credit card debt, home loans, etc. The idea being that investors have not bought these securities because they have been unable to secure financing to purchase them through the private sector. The government will make financing available to those investors that purchase AAA-rated ABS to try to reopen the market and make more credit available to main street USA.

I guess the theory is consumers will ignore EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF ECONOMIC INFORMATION AVAILABLE and decide to buy stuff because the credit is now available. At a moment when we are losing (conservatively) 600K jobs A MONTH, who in his or her right mind is going to buy a new car, house, or hot tub? ESPECIALLY when prices are being pulled toward terminal velocity. If consumers did this it would be so far past irrational as to call it “insane exuberance.”

Dear Ben, a lesson from Marketing 101: In order to be successful a product has to fill a need in the marketplace. Consumers don’t want debt! Not only do they not want debt, they’re not going to spend the money they already have. So there’s no way you’re going to get them to purchase stuff right now. Consumer behavior is now a lagging, not leading economic indicator. Consumers will start spending after — NOT BEFORE — the economy gets back on track.

Read more by going here …

It’s so bad some companies are actually telling the truth.

From my latest at BlownMortage:

Société Générale expects the United States’ economy  to enter a depression and that China’s economy in in danger of  imploding. Albert Edwards, an analyst for the European financial services giant, wrote:

While economic data in developed economies increasingly reflects depression rather than a deep recession, the real surprise in 2009 may lie elsewhere. It is becoming clear that the Chinese economy is imploding and this raises the possibility of regime change. To prevent this, the authorities would likely devalue the yuan. A subsequent trade war could see a re-run of the Great Depression.

If this sounds apocalyptic it is at the very least a needed antidote to the incessant whistling-past-the-graveyard we are hearing from so many other official sources. My current favorite comes from Philly Fed Chairman Charles Plosser:

I expect the housing sector will finally hit bottom in 2009 and the financial markets will gradually return to some semblance of normalcy.

Plosser also says he  doesn’t expect uneployment to hit double digits. While I am not certain Mr. Edwards is right, I would happily bet my next mortgage payment Mr. Plosser is wrong.

One of these is certainly to be a nominee for the worst prediction of the year awards.

How to get a piece of the government bailout

My latest from BlownMortgage:

At this point in the economic down-turn there’s really only one question on most of our minds: How can I become a commercial bank or an automaker?

Old friend Helen Kennedy put it succinctly in The New York Daily News: “Two more pillars of the American economy are coming to Washington hat in hand: American Express and Detroit’s Big Three. The struggling New York-based credit giant reportedly wants a $3.5 billion bailout. American Express got permission to become a bank holding company this week, making it eligible for a piece of the $700 billion bailout.

The Federal Reserve gets to make the decision about who gets to be a bank. Since the Fed has already decided to leave us all holding the bag for bank companies, it seems only fitting that we should also get a chance at being a bank holding company as well.

Use the following checklist to see if you qualify:

  • Do you need to cut borrowing costs?
  • Are your main sources of funding in danger of going away?
  • Do you need access to government money?
  • Has your inability to get credit endangered your fiscal health?
  • Would the ability to issue government-backed bonds keep you solvent?
  • Are you willing to take deposits from both consumers and companies?
  • Is your current role in the financial system mostly watching your investments lose money?

If you answered yes to all these questions then CONGRATULATIONS!!! You clearly meet all the essential qualifications needed to be a bank holding company.

Not sure of all that it takes to become an American car company but I do know I can fulfill one of the basic obligations: I guarantee no one will want to buy a car I build.

Is it just me or does the plan to throw more money at the car companies give new meaning to the phrase “Grand Theft Auto”?

Would you buy a used economic commentary from this man?

My latest over at BlownMortgage:

The Fed has announced it will now buy commercial paper from money market mutual funds and endorsed the idea of another economic stimulus package. Far be it from me to turn up my nose at free money. I could use a handout … I mean stimulus check as much if not more than most of Wall Street. But I am disturbed that these efforts continue are in keeping with previous Bush Administration policy to never have a clue how something – like a war or a however many bailouts there will be – will be paid for.

Click for more of this and my paen to William Proxmire.

Shanty towns and bank runs: recession may be the optimist’s outcome

Before the fiddlers have fled
Before they ask us to pay the bill
And while we still
Have the chance
Let’s face the music and dance

Last March, the BBC ran a story about shanty towns springing up in the US.

At the time BoingBoing and those few others who saw it asked why we were learning about this from the UK media and not from the US media. Now, a scant six months later, the US press has paused from parsing porcine lipstick and noticed.

The relatively tony city of Santa Barbara has given over a parking lot to people who sleep in cars and vans. The city of Fresno, Calif., is trying to manage several proliferating tent cities, including an encampment where people have made shelters out of scrap wood. In Portland, Ore., and Seattle, homeless advocacy groups have paired with nonprofits or faith-based groups to manage tent cities as outdoor shelters. Other cities where tent cities have either appeared or expanded include include Chattanooga, Tenn., San Diego, and Columbus, Ohio.

We’ve already had a bank run in the classic sense and one updated for today’s world: Yesterday’s announcement that Putnam was liquidating a “$12bn prime money market fund because of a spike in redemption requests from clients.” Just because they have the money to cover this — as it appears they eventually will — doesn’t make it any less of a run.

Today the early headlines say Stocks soar at opening after gov’t rescue plan. Forgive me for thinking the markets are indulging in some irrational exuberance. We’ve seen this sort of response before. This is from the Wall Street Journal on March 19:

Stocks and commodities plummeted on Wednesday as the euphoria that carried equity markets to massive gains a day earlier gave way to nervousness that the broader U.S. economy hasn’t yet escaped the dangers of the credit crisis.

At some point we are going to see a huge impact from the Fed’s determination to once again deal with another issue by printing more money. Some commentators say this will simply mean an explosion in the size of the national debt. I wish that was all. The current crisis was created by pumping increasing amounts of money and credit into the economy, it is beyond me to understand why doing more of this will help fix it.  You know what they call it when you keep repeating the same behavior and expect different results, right?

I am not smart enough to determine if we are about to hit a period of inflation or deflation but I know something is going to happen and will keep happening until all the difference between the amount loaned and the actual value of assets comes into balance. (If you’re a debtor start rooting for deflation — it means any money you do use to pay off a debt will be worth less than the money you originally borrowed. A net gain, if not a happy one.)

As the year has gone along, I’ve tagged a number of items under Recession? What Recession? I can’t say they make for happy reading:

In March, when the BBC ran that shanty town story, it still seemed possible to have a reasonable disagreement over whether or not we were in a recession. Now the D word is in play. Soon we will be hearing that we are not in a depression and that we are trying to avert one. That is becoming the economic equivalent of promising to have the troops home by Christmas. As soon as you hear it, you know it’s a lot worse than anyone is willing to say.

The leading indicator of the “we are not in a Depression” meme came last week when Alan Greenspan — who is mostly responsible for the crisis — tried to put lipstick on this pig by saying, “First of all, let’s recognize that this is a once-in-a-half-century, probably once-in-a-century type of event.” Given that the Mississippi river keeps getting hit by floods that were once described as “once in a century” events, this is not a heartening phrase. Another troubling indicator is that the folks who decided what’s in the Dow Jones Industrial Average have replaced the now defunct AIG with Kraft. I suspect the real problem with leaving AIG is that it would have made the Dow actually reflect the economy.

Someone once asked Tom Lehrer why he stopped writing those wonderful, witty songs about the news. Having turned out anthems on topics from pollution to nuclear proliferation, Lehrer said he had begun to feel like a citizen of Pompeii being asked to say funny things about lava. Without having matched Mr. Lehrer’s accomplishments, I can certainly empathize. I have been saying for the last seven years that the real problem with the Bush administration is that it took all the fun out of being able to say “I told you so.” Unlike Mr. L, I refuse to leave the scene — especially when we are in such a target rich environment.

There may be trouble ahead
But while there’s moonlight and music
And love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance

While many people have recorded this song — but not Roxxy Music, for some reason — I still prefer the original by Fred Astaire. It’s on the soundtrack to Follow The Fleet. A happy little musical by Irving Berlin that was made into a movie in 1936.